John Banville (2016) Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir. Photographs by Paul Joyce.

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Einstein was right, time is distance. John Banville asks ‘when does the past become the past?’ The answer, of course, is it doesn’t, but it does. Recently, the citizens of Ireland voted to modify the law and allow women to have abortions in their country. Banville tells a story of how his mother was reprimanded by the parish priest for reading ‘Women’s Own’ magazine showing the influence of the Catholic Church in controlling people’s lives. Only Eastern European and Communist countries Banville suggests could compare with nineteen- fifties Ireland.  She did as she was told and stopped reading it. For those of you that don’t know about ‘Women’s Own’, it’s about as racy as an Enid Blyton book. The irony noted by Banville is Dublin had historically more prostitutes than most modern capitals.

Curiously, gay marriages, shouldn’t be such a shock. This crops up in the only novel of Banville’s that I’ve read, set largely in Dublin, The Book of Evidence, and has the protagonist trying and failing to remember the taxi driver that stalks him because he owes him money, and he finally, calls him Reck, well, Reck appears here too, alive and not kicking, and gay pubs feature with abandon as they do in literary Dublin. Or indeed, unliterary Dublin. Pubs and cinemas that’s where people found their culture. Glasgow is very similar, but less understanding of the queer fellows or local ‘characters’. Dublin was ahead of London or even New York.  This is shown with a brilliant vignette.

One day I witnessed an epicene young man, as camp as Christmas, step balletically off one of those buses as it was drawing to halt. When it had stopped, the conductor, a diminutive fellow, appeared brandishing a furled umbrella. ‘Hey fairy,’ he called, jeeringly, after the departing dandy. You forgot your wand!’ The young man stopped, turned, strolled back, took the umbrella, and tapped his taunter lightly on the shoulder with the tip of it, saying, ‘Turn to shit, evil dwarf!’

I’m not really one for studying photographs. But for the descriptions alone this book is worth reading. Dublin is full of hidden corners and hidden pens. Banville, included. Read on.

Book of the year. Peter Wadhams (2016) A Farewell to Ice. A Report From the Arctic.

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A writer has one imperative, or simple rule – read. Often I have little understanding of what I’m reading. Usually there is a but here. I do not understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but…kinda like a meme from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started.’ Or Rumi’s parable of the elephant and six blind men. One holding onto a leg, or trunk, an ear, and explaining to the other what in the world stands true. Wadhams’ A Farewell to Ice is a familiar tale and it is distilled into a line of poetry he quotes from mystic Francis Thompson: ‘Thou canst not stir a flower/Without troubling of a star’.

Like Jonah preaching to the Ninevites and warning them they have forty days, Wadhams is telling us much the same thing about the accelerating effects of Arctic Feedbacks on our once blue planet. He is not giving us forty days, but perhaps forty years and we’re pretty much gubbed, sackcloth and ashes.

The trigger is fossil fuels, measured in parts per million, and what he is saying is mankind has already fired the bullet. I employ a simple rule of thumb, when a pessimist is also a realist, usually he’s right. Think of Thomas Piketty Capital documenting how after the end of the 1970s money flowed at increasing rates from the poor to the rich in the developed world. Like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, I don’t need to know all the details. I can believe it is true, or not, which is an act of faith. But Piketty as an economist showed us how he got to where he is and said, very simply, prove me wrong. Wadham does the same. Here is my data and here is my message: ‘We must not only go to zero emissions, we must actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere’ (italics around text are Wadhams’). He suggests a real danger with hundreds of millions starving, and also  the possibility of nuclear war.

What Wadhams didn’t factor in was the Donald Trump factor and the appointment of former General ‘Mad Dog’ Maddis as United States Defense Secretary, or the President Elect’s provocation with China over the sovereignty of South Korea even before he takes office. We live in interesting times.

But Wadhams is on more familiar ground with his outing of ‘The Black Tide of Denial’ and how fossil fuel interests have taken a hatchet to budgets and attempted to discredit those that support the claims of global warming in the same way that Communists were thought to be under every bed in the McCarthy era. Wadham gives several examples of attacks on himself and other scientists, but perhaps the best example comes from Jamie Doward, The Observer, ‘How the trolling of a tech pioneer reveals a new assault on climate science’:

Wadham could not have predicted prior to publication this year that the trolls that produced such propaganda would not only try to influence decisions about climate change, but would be appointed as judges of what was right and wrong. All that ‘green crap’ referred to by David Cameron is dead in the water. An analogy would be fifty years ago appointing directors of the big five tobacco companies as independent advisors of whether there was a link between smoking and cancer. The difference now, of course, is we’ve not got fifty years. The enemy is at the door now. And our blue planet does not care what you believe, or whether you believe it is right or wrong. The earth will keep turning. One million years is not the equivalent of a minute in the day. Pseudo-science and greed has given voice and grown arms and legs. Perhaps reason will meet sense, but I doubt it. We are too far down the path. As above, so below and all parts are interconnected.

Listen to a quote in Wadhams from a voice of reason, scientist and Professor Robert P. Abele.

As we inflict violence on the planet to the point of mortality, we inflict violence on ourselves, to the point of our mortality. A dead planet will result in dead people, and a people and/or its leaders who are psychologically and/or ethically desensitized to the consequences of this Terran violence have no chance of long-term survival.

Read this book. Share this post. Ask a simple question: what can we do?

Fifth Lesson: Grains of Space

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Twentieth-century physics has given us two lodestars: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Some of the fruits of these are the study of cosmology, astrophysics and at more microscopic level, gravitational waves and black holes. Yet the two theories cannot both be correct, because they are, in essence, contradictory. The paradox is both also work in their domains remarkably well. Einstein’s Theory of All Things was a search for that something missing that would square the circle.

Rovelli suggests there is nothing new in this eclecticism. He gives example of Newton discovering gravity by combining Galileo’s parabolas with the ellipses of Kepler. Maxwell found the equations of electromagnetism by combining theories about electricity and magnetism.  Einstein discovery of relativity was a way of resolving the contradictions between electromagnetism and mechanics.  Rovelli is suggesting a progression, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing anew. Theoretical physics does not stand still.

Modern physicists are he suggests currently working on a hypothesis that partially solves The Thoery of All Things and Rovelli calls this research ‘loop quantum gravity’. But he suggests, if correct, we will have to also reconsider how we see the world. Space is no longer space, but a granular substance made of a type of quanta, a billion billion times smaller than the smallest atomic nuclei. A continuous loop, like chainmail, that undulates and flows. Again, I think, we go back to the medieval notion of ether or aether, a very rarefied and highly elastic substance thought to permeate through all of space and between the interstices of matter. The medium and the message. Space is nowhere and everywhere.

Time no longer flows but is contained in granular space. Subject and object. Here and now vanish. Space and time are illusions, like the picture of a X-man standing on the flat earth with the sky above him. Because he cannot see or feel the wave of space and time he is not sure it exists, but he is part of the granular structure of space/time.  The relationship between quantum events are the source of time and space.

Where’s the evidence for this?

Rovelli suggests the study of black holes may offer some clues. If the theory of the loop of quantum gravity is correct, matter in stars collapsing into a black hole cannot have collapsed into an infinitesimal point, because only finite quanta of space exist. Their working hypothesis is inside a black hole the sun’s matter would continue to collapse until it no longer could. Theoretical physicists have called this imploding star a Planck star. They have suggested the entire matter of the sun would be condensed into the size of an atom. But it would not be stable. In fact it would be highly reactive. But because these conditions are so extreme and take place over such long periods of time it would seem to the observer as if there is stasis and nothing is happening. Neither of which is possible in classical physics and improbably in quantum physics.

It’s not a large jump to suggest, and search for evidence, that prior to the ‘Big Bang’ there was a ‘Big Bounce’ and that our universe was created from a preceding universe contracting and expanding under its own weight. Fiction or friction?  Before you were, I am.

Fourth Lesson. Particles


Atoms are the smallest things we can see. Each atom consists of a nucleus orbited by electrons. We’re looking more closely at the nucleus here. Each nucleus consists of protons and neutrons. If we go even smaller protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller units given the name quarks by the American physicist Murray Gell-man. The force that ‘glues’ quarks together inside protons and neutrons is called gluons.

In medieval philosophy an element was thought of as something fundamental that couldn’t be broken further down into anything else. Look at the periodic table. Superimpose on it these building blocks of space and time. Ephemera comes from the Greek and the narrative is linked to a plant the ancients thought lasted only for a day. Elementary particles exist for a much shorter time than that – a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second. Like quanta in an electromagnetic field they do not have a pebble-like reality and their effect can only be measured in terms of probability. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva for example is a loop designed to smash subatomic particles together at increasing speeds. We already knew that elementary particles such as neutrinos existed and swarm throughout the universe, but have little interaction with us, but CERN was able to confirm the existence of the more elusive ‘Higgs bosons’.

This makes it sound like the straightforward world we are used to that of cause and effect. But quantum mechanics has its own laws, which are not laws, but more like whispered suggestions. From the early 1950s to the 1970s physicists such as Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann suggested a set of commonalities and parameters that could be used to experiment with elementary particles called ‘the Standard Model of elementary particles’.  The Higgs Bosons (named after the Scottish physicist Professor Higgs) for example was a thought experiment using quantum mechanics before its existence was confirmed by CERN.

Despite the Standard Model’s success, or perhaps because of its success, it has attracted criticism. It lacks the austere beauty of Einstein’s equations. In comparison it is cobbled together with piecemeal and patched theories without any clear order; an uncertain number of fields; interacting between themselves within certain and uncertain forces; determined by certain constants whose values are unclear; but show a certain (unknown) symmetrical pattern and stirred with a big wooden spoon called the Standard Model.

The Standard Model’s predictions about the unobserved world do work in describing the world as the Higgs Boson shows but it also leads to nonsensical predictions which have to be ignored or counterbalanced; a procedure called ‘renormalisation’.  Paul Dirac, the great architect of quantum mechanics, whom Rovelli places second only to Einstein in the pantheon of twentieth century scientists, concluded ‘we have not yet solved the problem’ of quantum theory.

Quantum theory has more recently been unable to account for what has been termed ‘dark matter’, a large cloud of material observed by astronomers whose gravitation pull deflects light in distant galaxies. Quantum theory is itself in flux, as it always has been.


Second Lesson: Quanta.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Trick Questions.”

god does not play dice

Carlo Revelli (2015) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segree.

If Isaac Newton is the father of physics, Albert Einstein is the mother, but he didn’t love all his children equally. Remember before Einstein, physics was spread out like a dirty nappy between subjects as diverse as Mathematics, Philosophy and the industry leader, Chemistry, in universities and colleges. A fresh-faced Richard Feynman after leaving the Manhattan Project, for example, found himself teaching at Cal Tech. He was the Physics’ department. The atom bomb changed everything, but before the atom bomb, quantum theory (or quantum mechanics) changed everything we know, or think we know, about atoms. Einstein’s theory of gravity, space and time wrapped reality up in a big red bow. Quantum mechanics picked it apart and introduced uncertainty into equations. No one was quite sure how it worked, but quantum mechanics did work. Nowadays, for example, quantum computers exist. Birds navigate from continent to continent by ‘seeing’ the curve of space/time.  Einstein before he died was trying to reconcile the known and the unknown. His theory of everything was championing the god of objectivity in science. And Niels Bohr, whose ongoing dialogue with Einstein enriched science, suggested at a subatomic level the devil of subjectivity played a part. Before he died Bohr had a photograph taken, in the background, a blackboard in his study. The drawing on it is a ‘light filled box’ something Einstein conceived as a thought experiment.

‘Imagine a box filled with light, from which we allow a single photon to escape for an instant…’

Photon from phos/phot ‘light’, but light is both singular and pleural. One cannot be separated from the other.

But that is exactly what Max Planck did. He imagined a hot box. In it an electric field in equilibrium. His genius was suggesting that the energy of this field could be broken down into quanta, packets or lumps of energy. Light, which travelled at a uniform speed through space, in relation to the energy expended in creation, was somehow at a subatomic level, lumpy. It made no sense, but made perfect sense. Einstein confirmed Planck’s hypothesis was correct.

Bohr’s genius was the nowadays clichéd quantum leap of gaining the philosopher’s stone, without quite knowing how it worked. He described how electrons gain and lose the energy of light (that quantum leap) from one oscillating orbit to another and how Mendeleev’s periodic table of how everything remains the same, but is different, could be best understood.

A fellow German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, put a new spin on it by suggesting, at a subatomic level, electrons do not always exist. Objective reality therefore does not exist. An apple, for example, either exist, or it does not. But Heisenberg suggested we did not to follow that strict dichotomy. We could calculate the probability of an electron existing, but only when colliding with something else and making a quantum leap. Before and after, is not measureable, and in the same way, when I’m offline I no longer exist and have no place in the world.

Rovelli puts it very succinctly: ‘It’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored, but just dotted with a faint outline.’

Possibility and probability replace all the old certainties. But like alchemists of old not only were electrons called into being when observed jumping from one random state to another, but the subjective element of looking or measuring could not be teased from cause and effect. I, for example, only exist online when you look at me. I don’t exist otherwise. Or I may exist, but you can’t prove it. And if you try and look at me offline you can no longer see me online. The real and unreal become wrapped around one another. And in observing you become part of the ongoing equation. Look away now. Next up, in the third lesson, ‘The Architecture of the Cosmos’.